On 1 June, a day before the ninth anniversary of Telangana formation, Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) leader and Telangana’s IT Minister K Taraka Rama Rao seemed rather sure of what the party’s future in the state would be. Speaking to a hoard of journalists at his residence at Banjara Hills, Hyderabad, KT Rama Rao or KTR, as he is popularly known, said, “We will come back to power for the third time in Telangana and KCR garu (Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao) will continue to be the longest serving CM in the state.”
Telangana Assembly elections are scheduled to be held by the end of 2023. The polls can throw up unpleasant surprises for the BRS, with both the BJP and the Congress having trained their guns on the pink party with studied resoluteness. However, KTR did reveal what the BRS’ role in Indian parliament’s Opposition ranks will be.
A National Opposition Player Without Joining Any Front
The BRS, going by what The Quint has learnt, does not see itself opposing the image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for statistically sound reasons. Afterall, Modi’s approval rating in the country is high – as per NDTV-CSDS survey alone, 43 percent of the sample chose Modi as their PM candidate in 2023 – even a year before the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.
On the other hand, the BRS also does not want to tether itself to the dominant Opposition front, especially under the Congress, which seems to have got a shot in the arm thanks to its thumping victory in Karnataka Assembly elections. It has also been lukewarm towards the efforts of Bihar CM Nitish Kumar.
When asked whether the BRS will attend the Opposition meet expected to be hosted imminently by Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, KTR said, “As far as I know, we have not got an invitation.” But the BRS’ reluctance to join the Opposition meeting – scheduled for 12 June – is not just about the invitation getting stuck in the mail. KTR further explained why ‘Opposition unity’ centered around attacking Modi does not work for the BRS:
“There is no doubt that this man (Narendra Modi) should go. But, it (Opposition unity) cannot be about singling one man (Modi) out and saying ‘let’s unite against him.’ That’s not our agenda, that negative rhetoric is not what we dwell on. Instead, let’s debate what the better model governance is.”
Political analysts think the BRS, which has been opposing the BJP tooth and nail in the state in an election year, has taken a tactical u-turn. With KTR holding a subtly ambiguous press meet, the party’s stand on facing the BJP in Lok Sabha elections seems to be clear and in line with what the Congress in Karnataka and the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi had done during their respective state election campaigns. How?
Why ‘Attacking’ Modi Is Not the Only Way Ahead for the Opposition
A large part of the press meet – except for the part where Rama Rao talked about BRS’ contribution in bringing water, wealth, and employment (Neellu, Nidhulu, Niyamakaalu) to Telangana, which was once a ‘neglected’ region in Andhra Pradesh – was about the party’s future in national politics. Meaning, the BRS, even in the heat of Assembly elections is actively nurturing its national ambitions after the party, which was earlier called Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), made a foray into national politics in 2022.
“Our chief minister (KCR) has been saying, as we go into Maharashtra and other states, about how India needs to rethink its strategy after 75 years. It needs to think about how there is lack of drinking water, power, and other basic amenities…People vote for whatever mode of governance which they think is better…” As an afterthought on 2024 Lok Sabha elections, the BRS leader said, “I think PM Modi should be shown the door as he is the most incompetent, inefficient, and ineffective prime minister that India has had.”
The dichotomy in KTR’s statements is similar to the stand the AAP took in 2020 Assembly elections in Delhi, which the party won emphatically. The AAP’s campaign focused on local issues – health and education – even as it offered an alternative to the BJP (and not Modi) by appealing to both the Hindu voters and underprivileged castes and minorities. Similarly, in Karnataka, the Congress focused on five poll promises that offered dependable welfare measures to people set amid the party's overarching rhetoric on social justice, instead of focusing on countering polarising rhetoric from the BJP and its star campaigner Narendra Modi.
For the BRS too, going by what KTR seems to have implied in his press briefing, go local, talk development, and steer clear of Hindu nationalist rhetoric unless when forced to, seems to be the mantra. This political strategy is not similar to anti-Modi stand espoused by parties like the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
In Tamil Nadu, the DMK won an overwhelming majority in 2019 Lok Sabha elections and 2021 Assembly polls by hitching its ride on anti-Hindutva rhetoric. Chief Minister MK Stalin, one of the most fervent critic of Modi, went overboard pitting his party’s secular Dravidian politics against the BJP. In Kerala too, the CPI(M)’s Pinarayi Vijayan had rhetorically positioned himself over and above the Congress as a champion of secular politics, ahead of being elected for a second consecutive term in office in 2021.
But Tamil Nadu and Kerala are not Telangana and the rest of south India and India. TN and Kerala have secularism intertwined in the local political consciousness and social fabric – long spells of social justice movements and left-leaning political history have ensured this and the 21st century and its high decibel right-wing turn does not seem to have completely eroded this ethos.
Alliances Can Happen But Local Politics Trumps Unity
The BRS seems to have realised that in places where the right-wing turn is imminent or ongoing, opposing the BJP cannot be done on the saffron party’s terms, especially by putting up a front against the towering political image of Modi. Notwithstanding the apathy towards centring political discourse around Modi, the BRS is clear that alliances – pre-poll or post poll – can happen in 2024. For instance, in almost all big political events, including the launch of the BRS held in Telangana, national leaders, especially those of AAP, were invited.
However, keeping in mind that the Congress too is a principal Opposition party in its home state, the BRS has had a strained relationship with the grand old party. The Congress too has kept this distance. In the recent mega event which marked the swearing-in of Siddaramaiah as Karnataka chief minister, the BRS, AAP, and CPI(M) were not invited.
In crux, the BRS seems to be sending out the message that ‘Opposition unity’ cannot be unconditional or counterproductive to local equations.
When The Quint asked KTR about K Chandrashekar Rao’s recent press conference with Arvind Kejriwal, in which he had demanded what could be construed as ‘Opposition unity’ against the Ordinance on National Capital Civil Services Authority in Delhi, he clarified: “The alliance should not be about opposing someone or ‘dethroning’ someone. People also will not like such negative agenda. There should be a common agenda, a positive agenda – like a better model of governance – to forge this unity.”
He further explained that the BRS does not favour one Opposition party over the other, for future alliances. But local political equations will be taken into consideration before forming such partnerships. “For example, in West Bengal where Mamta Banerjee could find the BJP to be an overwhelming political threat, she can think favourably of the Congress as a future ally. But in Telangana both the Congress and the BJP are fighting hard (against the TRS). Therefore, here there is no scope of aligning or working with anyone,” KTR further answered The Quint.
Meaning, the BRS is not entirely averse to forming ties with other Opposition parties but is clear that an anti-Modi front will not work. After all, when former Chief Minister of the neighbouring state Andhra Pradesh N Chandrababu Naidu attempted an anti-BJP front before 2019 Lok Sabha polls, he ended up losing even his home state.
But the BRS maintaining a calculated distance from the Opposition also means that the party will not end up contributing to the larger political churning in the country where veteran leaders like Nitish Kumar have stepped forward to oppose Modi’s politics. Will the BRS’ stand give the party an edge in Lok Sabha or will it lead to a rout? BRS’ national future is most likely to depend on the party’s performance in Telangana Assembly elections.